A Walk in the Park at Rowntree Mills

Park People recently launched A Walk in the Park, a program to establish community-led walking programs in parks across Toronto. The program will help train walk-leaders and support them in leading walks that connect older adults, seniors, and newcomers with easily accessible walking activities in their local parks and ravines to improve the participants’ fitness and to help them form new, valuable and long-lasting social connections.

I had the pleasure of joining the Rowntree Mills walking group on their debut walk through Rowntree Mills along the Humber River. It was my chance to get a first-hand look at the program and experience it as a participant.

Gathering Together:

 

After some unseasonably warm weather, the morning in question was cool, grey and blustery. I wasn’t sure that there would be much of a turnout for the walk, but as I made my way to the meeting spot at Rexdale Women’s Centre, I was happy to find 13 smiling walkers ready to hit the trail. I was warmly greeted by Adassa and Jackie, this group’s enthusiastic leaders. There were snacks, walking sticks and pedometers available for anyone who was interested. Once everyone was signed in, we got on our way.

Getting Walking:

We did a bit of light stretching before descending down the sloped and tree-lined path into the park. Just a few minutes into our route, several ladies shrieked with delight as a young deer wandered into our path before bounding off into the trees. I was playfully teased for not being able to get my camera out fast enough.

As the walk progressed, everyone found their own pace and the group spread out along the trail. Some of the more athletic participants lead the way, while others strolled more leisurely behind, pointing out various birds and plants and exchanging tips on using walking sticks.

 

Slowing Down to Chat:

I asked one cluster of women what had motivated them to join the walking program. “It’s a nice way to get a little bit of exercise and spend some quality time with our friends,” one woman replied. Another woman chimed in to tell me about her Fit-Bit, saying that these walking groups are “a good way to get those 10,000 steps in for the day!”

Afterward, I caught up with our walk-leaders who said that they were quite pleased with the turn out for their first outing. Adassa said that people were already expressing excitement about walks to come. I very much enjoyed my first official Walk in The Park. It is truly heartwarming to see how such a simple activity can bring people together in such a big way.

We at Park People are looking forward to supporting walks like this one all through the summer and into the fall. We hope you’ll join us for A Walk in the Park near you!

Thank you to our generous funders the Government of Ontario and the Government of Canada. 
 
 
A huge thanks to our community partners Access Alliance, Rexdale Women’s Center, Delta Family Resource Center, and The City of Toronto Parks, Forestry, and Recreation staff at Stan Wadlow Club House and Earl Bales Community Center for helping us connect with the local community and get the project started.
 

Thank you to also to the Ontario Trillium Foundation for supporting this program

 

Lonely? Head to your local park

When I first moved to Toronto, I didn’t know many people. I found myself wandering out of my apartment day after day that first summer and plopping down in various parks around the city. Being in a park relaxed my mind, but placing myself amongst the energy of the people around me also helped me feel more connected to my new home.

Turns out I’m not alone in seeking out parks to make me feel less alone.

A new survey produced by CARP, a national organization that advocates for the health and vibrancy of people as they age, found that living near a park had a huge effect on reducing feelings of loneliness.

As Wanda Morris, VP of CARP, wrote of the survey in the National Post:

“The most intriguing result from the survey was the effectiveness of parks in reducing loneliness and social isolation. Even when we controlled for socioeconomic status, green space mattered. A lot. In statistical terms, the relationship between avoiding loneliness and living near a park was four times greater than the relationship between avoiding loneliness and having children.”

That’s pretty astounding. But it also gels with what we’ve seen at Park People in our own work and research about why people love and get involved in parks.

For example, when we surveyed park friends groups—volunteer-led groups caring and animating local parks—and asked them why they volunteered their time, we found that the second most popular reason (after spending time in nature, of course) was to meet neighbours and build social connections.

And combatting loneliness and social isolation was one of the key impacts we found in our Sparking Change research, which looked specifically at the benefits of park engagement in underserved neighbourhoods. Many of the people we spoke with at the community level told us they first got involved because they wanted to create opportunities for social connection in their community—for the park to become a hub.

Reaping the benefits of a park’s social environment doesn’t just happen though. It takes easy access to a park (a 10-minute walk is good), and the right mix of amenities and structured and unstructured programming to provide a platform for social connections.

Research has shown, for example, the importance of amenities like playgrounds and dog parks for social interaction as it gives parents and dog owners reason to chat with each other. But programming, like music events, community picnics, and farmers’ markets, is also important in encouraging people to not only stay in the park for longer periods of time, but actually talk with people.

All of this has huge equity implications. If people have less access to green space in their neighbourhood, they are automatically shut out of the positive wellbeing benefits of living near a park. And if they live near a park, but that park offers little in terms of the amenities or programming that people actual want, then that too can result in a disadvantage.

This last point was highlighted in some of the interviews we did for Sparking Change from residents and agency workers in some of Toronto’s tower communities—neighbourhoods characterized by large towers surrounded by open space mainly outside of the downtown core.

Whether it was Rexdale, Thorncliffe Park, or Flemingdon Park, community members spoke about the vital importance of improving and animating the green spaces in their community in order to bring people together and create a shared space that could act as that “hub.” This meant connecting with residents to brainstorm programming like small festivals, organize programming specifically for older adults and youth, advocate for new amenities (like a tandoor oven), and bring people together over sharing food and tips at a community garden.

Because having a green space nearby is good, but having one nearby that you love is even better. See you in the park.

For more information, read our Sparking Change report and our literature review.

 

 

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